An Interview with Roger Reeves

Cassie Duggan

Roger Reeves photo

Back in April, Roger Reeves visited the University of San Francisco as one of the readers in our annual Emerging Writers Festival. Reeves earned his PhD at the University of Texas-Austin, and is currently an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His first book, King Me was published last year. This conversation with Poetry Editor Cassie Duggan took place the afternoon following Reeves's reading on campus.

Switchback: The first poem you read to us last night ("Before Diagnosis") you had memorized. Do you make it a point to memorize your poems or does that just happen organically as you're writing them?

Roger Reeves: All of the above. When you're revising a poem a lot, the lines that stay with you, and with the poem, are the lines that stick. And so I think about the lines that I don't remember as being the ones that don't belong in the poem.

SWB: That's cool. So had you read that last night and forgotten a line, what would have happened?

RR: I would have had to take that line out. Now when I memorize poems I add to them or change them or take things out based on my memorization of them. I also memorize poems because I think it's important to know your work, in a certain way, so that you can think about the work as you're getting into it. You want to encounter it. I think if you're so worried about reading the right word on the page, it's hard to think about the encounter of the work in that way. So I always try to encounter my work as new, and I think when you're memorizing it you're calling it back from someplace else. And so I always think you're still encountering it in a new way.

SWB: And it's becoming you. That was the one thing that I noticed when you read. You are that poem. You get up there, you own this room. Everybody listens. I've read that poem several times and it sounded completely new to me when I heard it, completely fresh.

RR: Thank you. I had an older professor at the University of Texas once say that the poems that will be remembered, the poems that will be canonized, are the poems that we can remember. It's going to be hard to remember certain things. You can think about Gertrude Stein, some of her poems are very memorable.

SWB: Do you enjoy giving readings?

RR: I do. I do. So much of poetry happens in isolation; and it's a beautiful isolation. But there are times that you want to be more sociable, because you are making poems to contribute unto aesthetics, or you are pushing poetry forward, or even pushing a kind of social commentary forward. So, you're interested in that. If you were only interested in writing for the sake of writing you would only keep it in your journal.

SWB: What do you think the role of the audience should be? Should we be hollering? Should we be heckling you?

RR: That's a great question. I think we should be participating. I think the audience needs to do work. Poetry readings tend toward this Catholic church-esque style: you get up and sit down when someone tells you to. I didn't grow up in that type of tradition. There is a place for it, but there are many ways of encountering the sacred, and I think one of those ways is to participate in the making of the sacred. I think that in making art, not that it's sacred or secular, one can participate through an engagement with the work. I don't want the audience to feel like they have to be passive. It also helps for them not to be passive, because when you're giving a reading you have seventy-two pages worth of poems that you could read, it helps to know what people are responding to and what people aren't responding to.

SWB: I like that idea. I did grow up in that Catholic tradition, which is why I'm a stand-still-at-concert kind of person, it just doesn't feel natural to me as an audience member.

RR: So much of art is asking us to participate with and in it. That's what you're doing as a poet. You're not sitting in the church of poetry, passively. You say, hey I want to talk back to Eliot, or I want to talk back to Sexton, or I want to talk back to Natasha Trethewey, or I want to write something that disturbs this.

SWB: Do you feel that there's one poet that you're constantly in conversation with. Someone you can't shake?

RR: Yeah, well, I think so. I wouldn't want to shake this poet, because I find him to be an older brother, sort of. And that's Terrance Hayes. I find him to be amazing, and I wouldn't want to shake his influence. However, there's a lot of other influences within my newer work, I'm super influenced by Berryman and Stevens, especially "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," The Dream Songs. Whitman. There's probably subtle influences of people I would never think of, like James Wright.

I think there's a constellation of folks. The new work particularly. I was working on a poem this morning, an older poem, and I was just thinking about all these other poets, and something in the poem sent me back to "Song of Myself," and I had to go read a section of it to figure out some things.

SWB: I can see Wright and Stevens in a way. One of the other things I like about your collection, and it's kind of a weird thing I like about it, is how many animals are in it? Was that a conscious decision?

RR: It's something that people notice. Bees, birds, and other animals. I think there's two reasons. One, there's a moment in one of my poems where I say: "I have an animal for every occasion. And another / for the occasion after" ("Every Casket, a Pause"). I think there's a way in which animals are always with us, and I don't think we always acknowledge the ways in which animals are participating in humanity and making us human. That's what makes us more human than anything, if we're ever going to be human. Though I sometimes don't know if we are human. Living in Austin, the migratory patterns of birds will make you stop in your yard; you will have a whole bunch of blue herons just always there. And so I got really into birds because of that. And two, I was a boy scout. So I grew up camping a lot out in the woods. I really love nature. It's funny, for a while, I was trying to be a nature poet. I love being outside. Today, all I wanted to do was be outside all day.

SWB: Your poem "Boy Removing Fleas" seems, to me, to be an interesting crossover where a human interacts with an animal, too. Was that something where you saw that painting and said to yourself, oh my god I have to write a poem about that?

RR: So Basquiat's Ter Borch is basically a painting that's on another painting. And I wanted to be in conversation with this idea. There's a way in which Basquiat is in conversation with this other painting, and I wanted to be in conversation with Basquiat. So it's doing exactly what art is, to me.

SWB: Joining the party.

RR: Joining the party, right? But what I loved was that the composition was amorphous, so it allowed me to make something of the composition. There was a lot of space, where something else, in other words, could be made from that work. I let it be a meditation about a brother and a sister.

SWB: Is it harder to write about family? Do you have to enter into it in another way?

RR: I do. It's often through metaphor. Or thinking through questions of metaphor and silence and care. My personas are male—particularly, they're black. And I'm interested in black male care, and how black men care. How young black boys are taught to care, or not to care, which is something we don't normally think about doing, is caring for things. And I think of our art as a type of caring for someone else. I always wanted to write something that had something to do with care. So many of us, black men, are caring for things. And I want to think about how I've cared or not cared. Disease, sickness, and illness all exist so we may learn to care.

SWB: I'm curious about your poem "Thinking of Anne Frank in the Middle of Winter." How did that poem come about?

RR: I wanted to enter into a body that wasn't mine, and begin to think about persona. And the thing that no one thinks about in that text is Anne Frank's budding sexuality. But it's there. And that she didn't get to experience something she'd always wanted, to me, is the saddest thing in the world. But, it's something we never think about. Or at least I hadn't when I wrote that poem. One of the things I do—and I think it's extremely important—is to find queries into historical subjects that humanize them even more, and can then complicate how we think about them today.

SWB: Has your writing changed since the publication of your first book?

RR: It's funny, the thing I'm trying to get back to is just enjoying writing. We worry so much today that we don't enjoy it enough. You're your worst editor, and sometimes it just won't work. Just get the work out, that's what I have to tell myself so often. That's how "Some Young Kings" came about. I wasn't writing anything because I was so worried about what I sounded like, and after a while I said to myself, let me just write the poem that I want to write.

SWB: That's great, I love that. You spoke a bit last night about feeling hollow in graduate school. When you were a student did you feel like you needed to get out of that workshop mentality a little bit?

RR: Yeah. This is the thing. You're going to have maybe three readers your whole life that know how to read you and how to read towards where you want your poems to go. You probably won't meet any of those people in workshop. One must remember this. However, you still want people to engage with the work, and to think seriously about it. I was very frustrated in workshop; however, I met great friends in there, and people who have learned how to read me. I think that's the thing we should first teach in workshop, the first half of workshop should be learning how to read each other, no critique.

SWB: Are you teaching a workshop now?

RR: Yeah. And what I do is the first six or seven weeks, students can only explain a poem. It requires more of you as a reader. Then I also have students introduce each other's work, and say, this is how I see the poem working in terms of the emotional landscape, or the way metaphor and image working, this is why I think its stanzas are moving this way, or why it's not using stanzas, or how it's using couplets. It's coming up with a reason for every thing in the poem. Accounting for everything that happens in the poem. And that's what I think we should do first.

SWB: Definitely, that's a great technique. I want to be a fly on that wall for sure. I do think that you are in conversation with, but also doing things for, people that would say that poetry doesn't matter. I think you're acting out against that. What is your technique and when did you decide you that you wanted to adopt that technique?

RR: 2003. I was kind of getting beat up in workshop a little bit. Not a little bit, a lot a bit. And I remember something that Nikky Finney said, which is: "You have to come to the page and make it bleed. You have to draw blood from the page, if you are not drawing blood from the page you are not doing it right." And then I started thinking about the African American tradition. It used to be illegal for black folks to read and write in this country. So that was a subversive power: reading and writing. That's the tradition that I come from. I come from a people where this wasn't always allowed. This was illegal. I have to come with strength and beauty and struggle and art, the art of trying to learn how to read when someone doesn't want you to. That's art. Learning how to mechanize and make something that does not exist. And I do really believe poetry matters. When we take it outside the U.S. context, poetry really matters in other places. Poets get killed in other places, poets don't live in other places. There's a way in which we've democratized and sanitized how we dissent through aesthetics in the United States.

SWB: Do you think that makes us lazier as writers? That's probably the wrong word.

RR: I think one can still be agitated, that doesn't make us lazy, we just have to be aware. It's complicated being in the U.S. But we have a lot of privileges. I want to be more than a U.S. poet, I want to be a world poet. I want to write world literature. The world is huge. I want to be in conversation with people from Syria or Jamaica. There's people all over this world I want to talk to.

SWB: What advice would you give to someone starting out writing poems?

RR: Always write for you. Even if you write this poem that's scary as shit, you don't have to show it to anyone. I wrote "Before Diagnosis" two years before anyone saw it, and the only reason I brought it out was that I thought it was a bad poem, but people told me it wasn't. So write all your poems. Write as many poems as you can. Don't say, I can only write this many or that many. Write all your poems. Even the ones that scare you, start with the stuff that scares you, in fact, I think those will be the poems that surprise you.